Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Those Turks know how to bathe...

I am a spa slut.

It's true. I spa around. I bounce from one treatment to another without an ounce of regret. Facials, body wraps, Nordic baths, salt scrubs, manis and pedis.... I've done it all. And I'm hardly faithful to one aesthetician. Oh no. I play the field. And if someone new comes along, I will dump whoever I am currently seeing without so much as a word of explanation or farewell.

Oh yes, I have lots of notches on my terry cloth robe...

Which is why, while in Winnipeg a couple of weeks ago visiting the house of plague, I cajoled my sister into sneaking out with me for lunch and a spa date. And on this very trip, my friends, I discovered the ultimate in spa experiences...

... the hamam. Or Turkish bath, if you prefer.


Now I have friends who have travelled to Turkey, and so I have heard about the fabled hamam. The hot and steamy room, the luxurious salt scrub, the attendant who massages and bathes you in warm and cool water as you lie on a heated marble slab, the lavish rose-scented soaps...

The description sent me into fits of relaxation delirium. And propelled Turkey onto my vacation short-list. It also left me wondering if I might find a spa offering such services somewhere closer to home in the meantime.

Not surprisingly, no such luck in boring old Ottawa. So I set my sights on the more cosmopolitan centres of Montreal and Toronto. Still nothing. Vancouver, maybe? Nope. Only spas that offer steam rooms at best, but nothing that comes close to the extravagance of the hamam described to me by Turkey tourists. I felt sure I would have to wait until I set foot in the Middle East...

So imagine my surprise when I did a quick Google search of Winnipeg spas and found that an authentic Turkish hamam existed at the Ten Spa, located in the Hotel Fort Garry.

How in the world did this little corner of heaven on earth end up in Winnipeg?

I mean, no offence, Winnipeg. I'm from you, and I get that whole gateway-to-the-prairies charm thing that you've got going on. But let's face it. When I say "Winnipeg", the words "Turkish", "bath", and "mind blowing spa experience" do not come to mind. More like "cold", "flat", "perogies" and "The Forks". You can hardly blame me for expecting no more than a ho-hum pedicure from you, can you?

Well, however the Fort Garry Hotel pulled this off, I am glad they did. Because it is, quite simply, a heavenly experience.

Now admittedly, it started out as quite a scary experience. You see, there are a couple things I feel you need to know about the hamam. The first is that there is no clothing allowed in the baths. No bathing suits, no short-shorts and tank tops. All you wear is this:


... the pestemal, a small piece of checkered cotton that you wrap around you like a towel. And the ones offered to you at the Ten Spa are not knee-length on women as this image would have you believe. In fact, when wrapped around a woman's chest, they make Daisy Duke's outfits look like a nun's frock. But what's the big deal, right? I mean, who's going to see you wearing this piece of cotton tissue anyway? Just you and the hamam attendant, after all.

Weeelllllll.... not exactly. You see, the other important piece of information about the hamam is that it is communal. And not communal as in boys-together-in-one-room-and-girls-together-in-another, which is how said friend experienced the bath in Turkey. Communal as in boys-and-girls-all-together-on-the-same-heated-slab-of-marble. Being-bathed-and-massaged-by-hamam-attendants-at-the-same-time kind of communal.

Now I would like to think that I am not one of those prudish girls who is overly hung up on things like public nudity. So what if another hamam goer's bits slip out of his or her pestemal. A body is a body is a body. It's nothing I haven't seen before. No big deal. I mean, I played a game (or twenty) of strip poker with my friends when I was in university...

But here's the thing. I was really drunk for those games of strip poker. (I also hid behind a plant to cover my nudity whenever I had to get up from the table to get a beer). Plus, like most other women I know, I have body issues. And some days, I like my body less than others.  Especially on days that come after being out of the gym for two-plus months because of injury. More especially on days only a week or two after the holidays, when I gorged myself on sugary treats. And most especially on the same day that I decided to go back to the gym, only to discover a distinct muffin top shape sprouting out of the top of my gym shorts.

And then there were was all that unwanted body hair to think about. I hadn't seen my aesthetician for a bikini-and-leg-wax in weeks! What kind of roughage would spring forth from that skimpy pestemal! Could I really let all of those strangers see my hairy legs and ungroomed bikini line?

Oh God!!!! Could I really go through with this?

Yes. There was a moment of panic. But then I remembered that I could no longer call myself a spa aficionado if I passed up an opportunity like this one. Plus I am a proud Manitoban. I wanted so badly to rub it in the faces of my Montreal and Toronto friends that my hometown could boast the best spa in all of Canada, despite its humble prairie-ness. I owed it to my prairie pride to give this communal bath thing a whirl.

So I took a deep breath, suppressed my almost-bubbling-over-the-surface panic, wrapped my muffin top and hairy bikini area in a tiny pestemal, and with my eyes glued to the floor, avoiding all contact with every other human being in the place my head held high, I walked straight into the common waiting area and waited for the hamam attendant to call my name.

I swear to God, I waited there, practically naked, for an hour. I might have started sweating. At one point, I thought of eating some of the snacks that the spa attendants had laid out, since food is often my default when I am nervous. But then I remembered my muffin top and opted instead to read a fashion magazine. Where I was confronted with perfect women and their perfect, smooth, hairless, muffin-topless bodies, who would all look fantastic in the piece of tissue I was wearing...

Just as I was about to turn and run, the hamam attendant called my name.

And the hamam attendant was a HE.

I was so totally not prepared for this. I mean, I've had male massage therapists. But every single other spa treatment that I have ever received - from pedicures to waxing to full body scrubs - has only been administered by women. And women at least understand about letting your leg hair get a little unruly. We've all been there. But a man? Nobody told me that I would be practically naked, surrounded by other men and women, while a man bathed and massaged me...

But I fought the urge to run. Because at that point, in a room full of strangers all wearing pestemals, do you really want to be the wuss that runs away? No. You don't. And so I followed the attendant through the door to the hamam area, and into a small tiled room, where he offered me a cup of tea and a Turkish delight, and explained to me how the rest of the afternoon would unfold. Then he left me there to enjoy my tea while he "got ready".

I assumed that "getting ready" meant filling some bowls with water and getting some soap out. But no. "Getting ready" meant putting on a pestemal of his own. I don't know why this shocked me so much, given that clothes in a bath house make no sense at all. But seeing my male hamam attendant wearing nothing but a pestemal, coupled with by now knowing that he would be pouring water all over me and lathering me up, made me audibly gasp.

Of course, that might have had something to do with the full-sleeve tattoos and the six pack that his shirt had been hiding up until that point...

Needless to say, I very nervously followed my scantily clad and gorgeous hamam attendant into the actual hamam. And the first thing I noticed was four other people in various states of bathing or repose. And I couldn't help myself. I looked to see if I was skinnier than them...

Oh come on!!!! Don't judge me!!!! You know that you would all do it!!!

(And in case you are wondering, I was skinnier than almost everyone in the hamam).

Realizing this immediately made me feel better, albeit only slightly. With a bit more confidence in my step, I plunged myself under a hot shower, the first step in the hamam experience. Not only did it feel wonderful, but I noticed that the pestemal, when wet, actually starts to expand. I must have gained three inches off that thing once it got wet! Enough to hide my wayward bikini line! Score another point for my confidence.

Next, in my now-as-long-as-a-modest-strapless-dress pestemal, I made my way over to a small corner of the hamam to self-administer a salt scrub so that the pores could get good and open. Admittedly, there isn't much relaxing about this part. I mean, I undertake a similar exercise as part of my home showering regimen at least once a week. Plus, I couldn't help but think to myself that all that pore-opening salt was only making it easier for my hair to grow. As I was losing myself in the feeling of familiar panic that had so overwhelmed me for most of the day so far, my extremely gorgeous hamam attendant came and found me. "How are you feeling, Jay?" he asked.  "Ummmmmm.... er..... ummmmm.... fine, I guess," I stammered. He smiled, likely laughing on the inside at my obvious nervousness. "Good," he said. "Come with me. We'll begin the bathing ritual."

Now it seems to me that when a man with full-sleeve tattoos and a six-pack, wearing nothing but a pestemal, who looks a little like Lenny Kravitz, asks you to "begin the bathing ritual" with him, you should probably be positively giddy. But. I. Could. Not. Stop. Thinking. About. Body. Hair. Thus ruining the excitement factor a little. Still, I followed the attendant as he led me to a spot on the large marble slab at the centre of the hamam. There, he told me to lie back, to let my legs dangle over the end, and to relax.

I laid back. I let my legs dangle over the edge. But I did not relax. I couldn't. I was too busy squeezing my legs together to hide my bikini line. I was squeezing so tight that my hips and tailbone were jutting up straight off the marble slab.

And I stayed that way for a good five minutes, as the attendant poured hot water all over my legs and shoulders to remove the salt. I kept telling myself to relax and to let go. But somehow, I just couldn't.

Until the attendant sat down behind me and began to massage my neck and scalp.

You know, my husband could get me to do anything, and I mean a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g, if he just took the time to learn how to give me a proper scalp massage. It is my Achilles heel. I cannot resist the feel of fingers entwined in my hair, tugging gently as they knead away all that tension. And so, as the attendant's supple fingers drilled their way into the knots in my neck and shoulders and then through my hair, I literally felt the tension that my body was holding onto melt away. My hips softened. My tailbone dropped down to the marble. And my legs, ever so slightly at first, inched apart.

By the time the attendant placed a cool cloth on my forehead, signalling the end of the scalp and neck massage, I am pretty sure you could have driven a truck through my legs, they were spread so wide.

But then, he moved to my feet. Immediately, the tension came back, as I clamped my legs tight together so that he would not see any unwanted hair. I am sure I heard a little giggle escape his lips as he lifted my left foot and rested it on his shoulder, forcing me to pull my legs apart. I struggled, but only for the moment that it took for him to knead my sore runner's feet. Then, there was nothing left to do but sigh and give myself up - muffin top and hairy legs and all - to the intoxicating effect of the heated marble slab, the cool cloth on my forehead, and the foot and leg massage.

I did not want this treatment to ever end.

Nor did I care anymore about hair or fat cells or other strangers seeing all of the above. I could not even think anymore. My body, by this point, just was. Completely relaxed, in a state of bliss, and spread eagle on a heated slab of marble. Surrounded by strangers. Being manipulated by a half-naked man who could see all my lady bits if he really wanted to.

And the hamam experience does not end there. Once the attendant was done with my foot massage, he left me a bottle of water and whispered that he would be back in a few minutes so that we could begin the next phase of the ritual. When he returned, I could not imagine rising off of the marble - my body felt like rubber. My mind was so empty of thought that I am quite sure I forgot how to walk on my own. He had to take my arm and guide me to another corner of the hamam, because I was too out of it to get there on my own.

There was no one else in this next corner of the hamam. Just a massage table. And the intense scent of roses. I was asked to remove my pestemal and drape it over myself as though it were a blanket as I lay down on my stomach on the table. The attendant explained that he would administer a full body exfoliation and rose-soap scrub. To do so, he would have to fold the pestemal so that it covered only my bottom. "Did I mind?" he wondered. "No," I dreamily exclaimed, without hesitation, completely forgetting that I have this unsightly muffin top that I don't want anyone to see. When it came time to flip me over onto my back, he noted that he would need to fold the pestemal to cover only my bikini area. "Would you like a towel to cover up?" he asked, nodding every so perceptibly towards my breasts?

It is worth pausing here and saying that I don't love my breasts. They are certainly not my greatest asset. They used to be, when I was about 60 pounds heavier and they were, well, big. Now that I am more fit, they seem very small and very withered to me. And when lying on my back, what little of them remains splays awkwardly to either side, leaving this gaping canyon in the middle of my chest. It is for this reason that, when receiving other spa treatments, I always keep them covered. I just don't like other people to see them. Ridiculous as that might sound, them being "just breasts" and all.

But this time, in my state of complete and utter relaxation and dreamlike reverie, I just shook my head and said, "No. That's fine". And let the girls fall freely to either side of my chest. And I didn't even care. I didn't care about the inch or two extra freely exposed around my waist. And I didn't care about the extra leg and bikini hair.

It was so unbelievably liberating...

When it was all over, the attendant left me for a few moments while I re-wrapped myself in the pestemal, and then brought me out of the hamam, where he wrapped my head in a towel and brought me more tea. Then he brought me to the relaxation room, where I was reunited with my sister, who had opted for something other than the hamam.

"Must have been good," she said. "You look doped up."

I smiled.

"Was he your attendant?" she said, as she pointed to the man who had just led me through the ritual.

I nodded.

"Wow! He's smoking!"

I nodded again.

"What's your husband going to say?!?"

I shrugged.

"Are you ever going to say anything?"

I just smiled, put my finger to my lips, and said, "Shhhh. Not yet. I just need a few more moments." Then I laid back on the couch and closed my eyes, feeling the best that I have felt in a long, long time, wishing that I could somehow bottle that feeling and take it back home to Ottawa with me.

Later, when my sister and I were driving home and I told her all about it, she asked me how I ever felt comfortable enough to go through the hamam experience, particularly the part where my breasts weren't covered up. "I didn't feel comfortable at first," I explained. "But then, at some point, something happened, and I just gave up worrying about everything. My body, what I look like, what other people around me might think, and how naked I was. I just stopped, and let the sensation of complete relaxation take over." I paused for a moment, and then said, "You know, sis. It was the first time that I ever really relinquished control, and just lived in the moment. And I gotta say, it felt fantastic."

And now, here I am a few weeks later in hamam-less Ottawa. Back to a regular waxing schedule. Back to chastising myself for growing a muffin top, which has led to adding more gym and yoga sessions into my exercise regime until I wither it back down to normal. Back to worrying ever so slightly about what others might think of me when they see me naked in the yoga studio or gym change rooms. Back to comparing myself to others. And back to sticking to spa treatments that don't include other patrons and that allow me to stay covered up.

But I am also craving that feeling of complete surrender, if only for a fleeting blissful moment, as I lay on a heated marble slab, surrounded by other almost-naked strangers.

Perhaps I should just quit my job and open a hamam in Ottawa. Really. You will all thank me later.